Tibet, trade and consumer nationalism

On April 24, nine EU commissioners flew into Beijing, where according to Der Spiegel their mission will be to balance Tibet and trade. What this seems to amount to in practice is Peter Mandelson calling on the Chinese government to unequivocally come out against the wave of boycotts promoted by the fenqing and targeted primarily at French hypermarket Chain Carrefour. Some have been pretty spectacular.

France became the particular target for nationalist ire in China after scenes of disabled torchbearer Jin Jing wrestling over the Olympic flame with a pro-Tibetan protestor were heavily covered in the PRC. Another factor may also be in play.

According to China’s new leftist scholar Wang Hui, modern Chinese nationalism is basically a middle class phenomenon – consumer nationalism, he calls it – built around the idea that imports to China are a sign of the country’s increasing wealth and power. It recalls the old idea of barbarian nations bringing tribute to the Middle Kingdom. A Chinese nationalist doesn’t “buy Chinese”. He or she is more likely than others to prefer foreign goods, especially high end goods, as a sign of personal and national prestige. Contra Orwell, it’s the rich, rather than the poor, who are more national in China. It’s a notion confirmed by the anti-Japanese riots a few years back. These were focused on Shanghai, a city whose per capita income is five times the national average. So the country’s prominence in the luxury goods sector makes it especially vulnerable to a consumer boycott by Chinese nationalists.

Rupert Murdoch once described that Dalai Lama as an old political monk shuffling round in Gucci sandals. Given Sarkozy’s rush to mend fences with the Chinese government, the real problem here might be that he doesn’t have a set of Louis Vuitton suitcases to carry them around in.

3 thoughts on “Tibet, trade and consumer nationalism

  1. Pingback: Chinese Nationalism Fights Back « Escape Indifference

  2. Mandelson is walking an especially fine line now as on the one hand, he wants Chinese markets to remain open to European products while on the other apparently getting ready to concede that food imports to the EU might need to meet higher “technical” standards — standards that the rest of the world will see as disguised protectionism. It’s going to be a fraught year on the trade front.

  3. Pingback: Comfortable thoughts: The Rise of the Rest | afoe | A Fistful of Euros | European Opinion

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